John Luther Adams isn’t the first composer to set the sounds of the sea to music. There was Mendelssohn’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, Ravel’s Une barque sur l’océan and, most famously, Debussy’s La mer.
But Adams’ Become Ocean is unique. Though the lush tonalities of its sprawling soundscape yield passing comparisons to Wagner, Sibelius and Debussy, Become Ocean is unmatched in its verisimilitude, transcending scenic portraiture to “become” the sea through sound.
Much ink has been spilled analyzing the intricacies of Become Ocean's structure. Yet Adams — who composed the piece in the rural seaside village of San Juanico, Mexico — maintains that to write this music, he had to do one thing above all else: simply listen to the ocean itself.
“I want to be in touch with something bigger than myself that’s drawn directly from the source, without any mediation,” Adams says. “I’ve rarely turned to models for inspiration, or really for anything.”
Become Ocean will receive its Florida premiere Saturday night in a program of American music performed by the New World Symphony, joined by two other groundbreaking works from previous generations: Milton Babbitt’s All Set (1957) and Charles Wuorinen’s Bamboula Squared (1984).
The “Sounds of the Times” program will be conducted by Jeffrey Milarsky. The New York-based conductor curated the program and has connections to each of the three composers, dating back to his student years at Juilliard. During that time, he befriended Babbitt — whom he credits with igniting his interest in conducting contemporary repertoire — and as a young percussionist, he performed Wuorinen’s New York Notes and Adams’ songbirdsongs.
“They’re all big parts of my life in my own personal development,” Milarsky said. “But beyond me, I feel like they’re all master composers.”
Though the youngest piece on the program, Become Ocean is well on its way to securing a place in the contemporary pantheon. Upon its 2013 premiere, The New Yorker’s Alex Ross lauded Become Ocean as “the loveliest apocalypse in musical history,” comparing its emotional wallop to that of another sensational premiere — Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Since then, John Luther Adams has received a Pulitzer Prize for Become Ocean, performances are scheduled across the country, and the debut recording of the work earned a Grammy this year for Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony.
Listening to Become Ocean’s swirling, immersive soundscape, in which the listener is buffeted by what Milarsky calls “emotional torrents,” it’s easy to hear the work’s immediate appeal.
“The topography really grabs you,” Milarsky said. “It gets you into these moments of either restless quietude or overwhelming power.”
Like much of his oeuvre, Adams’ monumental portrait of the sea is informed by the composer’s deep reverence for nature. During his 20s and 30s, Adams was a full-time environmental activist before deciding to switch paths, at least vocationally, to composing.
“I can’t separate my life from my music or from my love of this world,” Adams says. “Everything I do has this sense of urgency to it.”
After living and composing in Alaska for decades, Adams observed the effects of climate change firsthand. Though he now divides his time between New York City and San Juanico, Adams remains “haunted” by what he saw.
“So much of who I am as a man and as an artist is rooted so deeply in that place,” he says. “To experience these rapid, human-induced changes in that place was very painful for me.
“If we don’t confront [climate change] in our consciousness, we’re going to confront it in reality, and sooner than we think.”
To that end, the score of Become Ocean bears two brief but significant inscriptions. One is a humbling admonition from Adams: “Life on this earth first emerged from the sea. Today, as the polar ice melts and sea level rises, we humans face the prospect that we may once again, quite literally, become ocean.”
The other is a single performance direction: “Inexorable.”
To Milarsky, it is that central, inevitable pulse that is the heart of Become Ocean: “I don’t know if [Adams] intended this, but the tempo marking [60 beats per minute] is supposedly our heartbeat, our pulse.
“And what I love about this concept is that you don’t hear time throughout this piece; you just hear moveable forces. I am the heartbeat — the main pulsation — and all of these things, like the universe, just work around it.”
“Inexorable” describes not only the dominant quality of the piece but also the looming issue at its core. Adams’ inscription seems especially prescient to low, narrow Miami Beach, which is especially susceptible to encroaching tides.
Concerns about the immediate and long-term effects of climate change in this region have risen in the past decade, with projections becoming bleaker with time. Miami-Dade County adheres to ongoing research by the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact indicating that the sea level could rise as many as 31 inches over the next 50 years, some two inches more than was estimated five years ago.
According to the same findings, if sea levels rise six feet — the higher end of the increase projected by 2100 — Miami Beach will be no more than a mere archipelago off the coast of Florida proper.
Harold Wanless, chairman of the University of Miami’s Department of Geological Sciences, fears that South Florida will be feeling the effects of rising tides sooner rather than later.
“As we get up another foot or another two feet — which is only a mortgage cycle away, basically — Miami Beach is going to be awash pretty much constantly,” he said. “A lot of Miami is not just going to be inconveniently affected some of the time, but constantly affected, to the point that I can’t imagine that it’s going to be livable.”
With Become Ocean at its heart, the title of the New World Symphony’s “Sounds of the Times” program takes on a double meaning, imbuing one of the most celebrated new compositions of recent years with a pressing issue of our time.
“What Adams writes is very potent,” Milarsky says. “How can you not think about that? How can you not understand the inexorability of what is happening to our planet?”
As for Adams, he maintains that Ocean isn’t merely “about” anything — it’s deeper than that.
“If you ask me if Become Ocean is a piece about climate change, I’d say no, not really,” the composer says. “You can ask me if it’s a piece about the sea, and even there, I’ll hedge my bets.
“It’s simply an invitation to pay attention to this world all around us.”